Cubs

What's the next step in Addison Russell's development?

What's the next step in Addison Russell's development?

For a team that ranked second in the National League in runs scored and came three wins away from making a return trip to the World Series, the Cubs had more than a couple of regulars who had down seasons.

Jason Heyward has yet to produce offensively since coming to the North Side. Kyle Schwarber got sent down in the middle of the season despite finishing with 30 home runs. Ben Zobrist was bothered by injuries and had the worst statistical season of his career.

Addison Russell was in that group, too. He dealt with injuries to his foot and shoulder as well as off-the-field issues that triggered a Major League Baseball investigation. Russell is ready to forget all about 2017. But the question still remains: Even without any of those other circumstances, what should people expect from Russell?

Just 24 years old, it seems like he's been a Cub forever. Russell drove in six of the Cubs' nine runs in Game 6 of the 2016 World Series, unleashing a rare display of emotion after he blasted a third-inning grand slam that sent the Cubs to Game 7 the next night in Cleveland.

But Russell has yet to turn in a batting average higher than .242. In two of his three big league seasons, his on-base percentage has come in just barely over .300. He drove in a whopping 95 runs during the Cubs' 107-win regular season in 2016, finishing in the top 20 in National League MVP voting. But 108 players finished with a higher OPS than Russell's .738 that season.

None of this is to suggest that Russell has been bad for the Cubs or that he doesn't deserve any recognition — his defensive capabilities alone have been good enough to keep "El Mago" (Javy Baez) at second base. It's just to wonder: What's the next step in Russell's development? How much better can he be?

Asked those very questions in the early days of spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon focused on both aspects of Russell's game, defense and offense, when giving a scouting report of what's next for the young shortstop.

"He’s a young man. It’s all going to come together for him," Maddon said. "I really think this is kind of his year to really blossom. He’s done so much good work over the last couple years. Last year a little more difficult in the beginning, but I thought he got it together towards the end. His game became better. The big thing is his arm, making sure that his arm strength is good, keeping him on the field where he feels comfortable making those throws. I know there’s always this controversy about the middle infield, but I really like him when he’s well because he’s so athletic, he’s so gifted, and as a shortstop he’s so fundamentally sound.

"I think his hitting — I’ve talked about this from jump street — this guy’s really strong. Watch his batting practices. At Wrigley, he’s really loud. That power a couple years ago was not a fluke, you’re going to see that again.

"So I would say a more mature approach at the plate, where if the count gets in the pitcher’s favor he’s willing to utilize the whole field. Pick up on his walks, cut down on his strikeouts by doing that. Beyond that, a more consistent approach to his arm daily, I think that’s what’s really going to be the separator. When he’s able to do that, you’re going to see this outstanding defense every day."

Russell is in a different situation than some of the other hitters mentioned above. He's young, still developing into what he'll be in his prime. That doesn't mean, though, that he can't benefit from new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis, brought in to help young hitters like Russell and Schwarber along as much as he was to "fix" veterans like Heyward and Zobrist.

Davis worked with Russell before, when the latter was a highly rated prospect coming up in the Oakland Athletics' organization. Now the two are reunited with the Cubs, much to Davis' delight.

"I had Addy in Oakland," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month in Mesa. "And we traded Addy and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for (Jeff) Samardzija and (Jason) Hammel. And I was very disappointed to see him go because I thought, 'Here's our future.' But at the time, we were trying to win, we were in a position to win and go on to the playoffs, so you do understand the trade. But it was just disappointing to see Addy go.

"But I was really happy for him because I looked up and he's in the big leagues. And not only is he in the big leagues but he's performing well in the big leagues. I remember saying to him, 'We'll be together again.' Here's a kid who you just knew, you knew he was going to be a big league player."

There are specific things that the Cubs are looking to see — and expecting to see — from Russell as the still very young player enters his fourth major league season. And while fans and observers will be looking for boosts in those offensive statistics, Maddon thinks the sky's the limit for one of the Cubs' core players.

Russell's already been to an All-Star Game, but Maddon sees something bigger than that.

"Absolutely he can win a Gold Glove," Maddon said. "A lot of our guys can win a Gold Glove. Addy’s right there. A lot of times winning a Gold Glove depends upon how well you hit, so I think he’s got enough offense to be a Gold Glove winner. He doesn’t make mistakes physically, as he goes after a ball, how his feet work, he plays through the ball really well, he turns a double play well. It really comes down to arm strength on a consistent basis, I think that will permit that to happen."

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

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USA TODAY

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.